Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Help Me Out Here, People!

Next April I will be speaking at the Los Angeles SCBWI spring Writer's Day about . . . I have no idea. Picture books? Query letters? Voice? Character? How much I hate David Rosenthal, the new producer of "Gilmore Girls"? (I'm watching it right now, and Chris and Lorelai being married is just nine kinds of wrong.) I really want to get a head start on this, and you all gave me great guidance last time, so please -- tell me what I should talk about!

(Also, if I might brag a bit, very small-ly: My "Art of Detection" talk has had over a thousand hits in less than a month! I am pleased.)

Monday, November 27, 2006

Rethinking the Haggard Case

For readers interested in matters of religion and sexuality: Bill Tammeus, the religion columnist for my hometown paper, The Kansas City Star, expressed my thoughts exactly this week on the situation of the Rev. Ted Haggard:

I stipulate that we all sin. But what if Haggard is simply wrong about thinking that part of his life is “repulsive and dark”? If he’s talking about what appears now to be his homosexual orientation, what if he finally were to reject the destructive idea that it’s sinful? What if, instead of fighting for much of his adult life against who he truly is sexually, he were to learn to embrace his sexuality as a divine gift that must, like all gifts, be used responsibly and lovingly?

. . . If people assume their sexual orientation is sinful, there’s no way they can love their truest selves. That means a balanced, loving, authentic, responsible life of service to others is impossible.
It's a thoughtful, humble, terrific column; read the whole thing here.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Notes from a Vacation

The Milwaukee airport has a marvelous used and rare bookstore, of all things, where I picked up Max Perkins, Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg. Perkins is the Ursula Nordstrom of grown-up books -- the editor of The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises, the architect of most of Thomas Wolfe's novels -- and thus far the biography is both entertaining and enlightening in showing how very little editing has changed in the eighty years since Perkins first labored. On the other hand, this is my favorite anecdote so far, about Perkins's boss in the Charles Scribner's Sons' office:

William Crary Brownell, the editor-in-chief, white-bearded and walrus-mustached, had a brass spittoon and a leather couch in his office. Every afternoon he would read a newly submitted manuscript and then "sleep on it" for an hour. Afterward he would take a walk around the block, puffing a cigar, and by the time he had returned to his desk and spat, he was ready to announce his opinion of the book.
Now that's the way to work out an editorial letter!


From my layover in Milwaukee I flew home here to Missouri, where I've had a lovely time with my family . . . just eating, talking, and watching football, but at Thanksgiving, who needs anything else? Yesterday we went up to Iowa to see my Klein cousins, and today we enjoyed a massive, hilarious, round-the-house, uphill and down-, backstabbing and trash-talking game of Killer Klein Croquet, capped off with the best final gate ever: over a ledge, up a ramp, down a deck, off a slide, into the gravel, nothing but wicket. My sister Melissa managed to accomplish this feat first, and hence she captured the Frog, who will now take up residence in North Kansas City. Congrats to the kid!


If you've ever seen a book cover and thought "Pshaw, I could do better than that," Penguin UK has a new line of classic novels with blank white covers just for you. The first six titles: Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, the Grimm Brothers' Magic Tales, The Waves by Virginia Woolf, The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, and Emma (whence I heard of this, through AustenBlog). You can e-mail your finished creation to the Penguin staff and they may use it in their online gallery. I think my cover for Emma would be modeled after the Hirschfeld drawing for the Original Broadway Cast Recording of My Fair Lady: Harriet Smith as a marionette with Emma pulling her strings . . . but Emma as a marionette as well, with her strings held by the ever-wise Jane Austen.


I know I've praised the LiveJournal of screenwriter Todd Alcott before, but I've been particularly impressed by the quality of the criticism and writing in his recent posts: meditations on dystopias, Brice Marden, and James Bond, reviews of classic films, and scenes from the Happy Ending Shakespeare Company, among others. He's especially worth reading if you like thinking about story structure and the great question used as his tagline: "What does the protagonist want?"


A book you should all go out and read immediately: Keturah and Lord Death, by Martine Leavitt. I took this up knowing nothing about it, besides that it was a National Book Award nominee, and I came away amazed and moved by the beauty of Ms. Leavitt's story. As the Front Street Books site says, "Renowned for her storytelling, Keturah is able to charm Lord Death with a story and thereby gain a reprieve—but only for twenty-four hours. She must find her one true love within that time, or all is lost." It is a marvelous book, thoughtful, surprising, and romantic, but always with an awareness that there are larger and more important things than romance, which gives it a depth not often seen in the here-and-now of YA literature. And the writing is pure and fine. Don't miss it.


I am thankful for my life, and the people and books and things in it, every day. Thanks to all of you for being part of it.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Scooba-Scooba-Doo, It's So Cute!

As I type, a little blue robot is chugging across my apartment floor, sucking up dirt, spewing out cleaning solution, nosing at table legs and mysterious objects under the bed. It's a Scooba, the mopping equivalent of the Roomba. It is noisy. It is ridiculous. It is the cutest thing ever.

When my parents and aunt and uncle were here last month, they went to a taping of The View. Advice for all future tourists to New York: Go to a taping of The View. Babs and Co. may not be Oprah and her Oldsmobiles (or Pontiacs, whatever), but everyone in the audience got a Scooba, retail value $295. (And they saw Nick Lachey and Helen Mirren too, but isn't it all about the swag?) When it came time to leave the city, my parents realized that their suitcases were already full, and other than the kitchen, their house is mostly wall-to-wall carpeting anyway. Thus they left one of the Scoobas with me. (Also I begged.) However, I had just cleaned my floors in preparation for their visit, so I didn't feel the need to break out the gadget immediately.

But tonight . . . I think I'm in love.

After I filled the tank, wiped the filters, and pressed on, it beeped a little happy song at me and blinked a few times. Then it spun in a circle, exactly like a dog settling down for the night, and roved off across the floor to explore. My studio is basically one long box (the main room) with another rectangular box intersecting one corner; the line where the two boxes cross divides the kitchen area, which has linoleum, from the rather scratched-up hardwood of the main room. The walls of the main room are entirely lined with bookshelves, various storage items, and furniture, with my bed about three-fifths of the way into the space. (Picture here if you need a visual.) This means there are lots of things for the little Scooba to bump into, and when it does, it just bounces gently back; you can almost hear it say "Excuse me" before it spins and heads off for another obstacle to investigate. Sometimes it goes to the lip of the hardwood floor and teeters there a moment, seemingly considering a venture onto the linoleum, before it backs away; and sometimes it's gone too far to back away, and then it beeps and a little light flashes: "I'm stuck!" And then I have to rescue it. Isn't that darling?

It did the vacuum cycle for about ten minutes; then it went into the mopping cycle, with a long trail of damp to mark its perambulations, rather like a slug; then finally the squeegee cycle, drying it all off again. Whenever it's in my line of sight here on the bed, I can't help but watch it, even though it does nothing more than blink and move very slowly. (It's a good thing I don't have a pet.) It does pretty well in the corners, I'd say, though I'm not sure it's hit every place it could in the center; and I've had to clean the dust filter three times, though I'm afraid that probably says more about my housekeeping than it does the Scooba. The entire cycle takes about 45 minutes, per the instructions, and looking at the clock, that seems about right.

In fact, it's finished its cycle now, with another happy little song. My floors look just incredibly clean. And I didn't have to do anything more than move the rug, fill its tank, and occasional maintenance. Wow. The Scooba came with a little magnet for my refrigerator, and what it says is true: I Heart Robots.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

My Backup Career Plan

A sign in the laundromat this afternoon:

  • Excellent Rates!
  • Superior Service!
  • Custom Design Options!
  • Discuss Proust!
Yes! There is a place for literature majors in the real world!
(Someday I will return to doing substantive, thoughtful posts about editing and publishing. This week is not that week.)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Allegory, Schmallegory: A Big Fat "Feh" for "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas"

(Warning: spoilers ahead, including the end of the book)

It has been a long time since I've read a book that I loathe with the white-hot heat of a thousand suns. There are too many good books in the world for me to spend my time on something that infuriates me. But this month my book group read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: A Fable by John Boyne, and ding-ding-ding! We have a winner!

God, I hate this book.

If you've been reading the reviews, you'll know that this is the story of nine-year-old Bruno, a German boy who is forced to leave his friends, family, and comfortable home in Berlin and travel by train to a less comfortable house in Poland, at a place he pronounces as "Out-With." His father is the Commandant at a large camp just across from the house -- a camp surrounded by tall barbed wire fences, where lots of people in striped pajamas (as Bruno sees them) mill around all day. Bruno eventually makes friends with one of these boys, a thin little skeleton named Shmuel, who he meets every day at an unpatrolled point on the barbed-wire fence. Bruno thinks it's unfair that all the boys on the other side of the fence get to play together and have fun; poor Shmuel, apparently having decided that putting up with this idiot is the cost of the food he brings, never corrects him. Then one day, Bruno slips under the fence to help his friend look for his missing father. He dons a pair of striped pajamas, they get in line with a bunch of other people, they are herded into a dark room that looks like a shower . . . and boom, the doors are closed and no one ever hears from Bruno again. (Bruno's father is very sad when he realizes what's happened.) The end.

Roger has an insightful post today about the fact that the books that have generated the most discussion this year -- Edward Tulane, Gossamer, and Boy -- are all allegories, and wondering what it is in the nature of allegory that prompts this strong response. I tried to comment (but Blogger wouldn't let me -- you need to convert to Beta, Roger!) that allegories are one of the trickiest enterprises in fiction, as they have to succeed completely as both fiction and symbol; it's OK for the symbol to be a little shaky, actually, but if the fiction fails, the whole structure collapses. With the allegories that work -- The Mouse and His Child, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe -- their allegorical intent often doesn't become clear to the reader till much later in the reader's life, but they give pleasure at all ages as solely the great stories they are. The ones that fail often fail precisely because the author is thinking about his metaphor more than his story and characters, and that thinking shows in the writing. Allegories prompt such strong and passionate debate because we're able to debate not only the worth of the fiction (which will vary wildly from reader to reader, as aesthetic responses always do), but the worth of its moral message, and especially the ways in which that message is communicated -- with what subtlety (or lack thereof) the author shows his metaphorical hand.

All that said, my problem with Boy in the Striped Pajamas is that it fails completely for me as both fiction and symbol: I didn't like the main character, so I hated the story, and I didn't see the point Mr. Boyne was going after, so I felt he wasted my time. Throughout the book, Mr. Boyne can't decide how ignorant either his readers are or Bruno should be. Bruno knows at one point that there's a war going on, but later, when his sister Gretel moves pins around a map of Europe, he doesn't understand what she's doing. He has never heard of Hitler (whom he calls "The Fury"), nor of Jews. If the author had made him five or six rather than nine, then this might have been believable; as it is, it feels completely author-constructed and -manipulated, and it made me have zilch respect for Bruno -- or less than zilch, actually, as he's also a spoiled, selfish, ignorant brat. The author seems to like him, or at least think he's an okay kid doing the best he can, but when Bruno turns a blind eye to his "friend's" suffering and beatings . . . not okay! Who wants to hang out with a kid like that?

Boyne continues the ignorance game by keeping the name "Auschwitz" away from his readers with that "Out-with" -- a ploy I couldn't figure out, because if readers were approaching the story from the same ignorance as Bruno, they wouldn't have heard of Auschwitz, so it wouldn't matter if the name was included; and if readers knew anything about the Holocaust, they would see through it, and then it would come off as cutesy and evasive. The same is true of the ending: Without a knowledge of the Holocaust, readers would have had no idea Bruno went to the gas chamber, and therefore the story would have had no meaning for them. "He disappeared? Is that all?" If you have that knowlege, then I suppose you can recognize that Bruno has been punished for his ignorance, but without the main character grasping the message, the story is neither satisfying nor clear.

And is that even Boyne's point? According to a number of reviews, yes; they claim Bruno's deliberate ignorance is an allegory for the willfully blindness of adult Germans during the War. Perhaps so, but in that case, Boyne should have shown us Bruno's death scene so readers understood the consequences of such ignorance, no matter their prior knowledge of the situation; and the message would have been infinitely more effective if the book were written in first person or Bruno was at least respectable (if not likeable), so I gave a damn when he died. "Cabaret" focuses on that same willful ignorance, but the moral power of the show arises from the audience's awareness of that ignorance throughout the debauchery onstage, and its creators' final condemnation of that ignorance and display of its effects in the last scene of the show. If this is Boyne's point also, he's removed all the teeth from it. And if it's not, then, as Roger said in his review -- "If Auschwitz is the metaphor, what's the real story?"

The messages of this post, loud and clear and un-fabulous: Always, always, always write good fiction first. And don't waste your time on The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Again gacked from Alvina and Fusenumber8. Only 78! I need to go bone up on my Seuss and Scieszka . . .

** Charlotte's Web by E. B. White
? The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
* Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
? The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss
* Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

- Love You Forever by Robert N. Munsch
- The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

? The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
* Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
(the asterisk was my reaction in fifth grade -- I have no idea how I'd feel about it now)
The Mitten by Jan Brett
? Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (this freaked me out when I was a kid)
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (one of those books all the boys read and I never did)
* The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
* Where the Sidewalk Ends: the Poems and Drawing of Shel Silverstein by Shel Silverstein
** Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Stellaluna by Janell Cannon
? Oh, The Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss
* Strega Nona by Tomie De Paola
** Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
? Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see? by Bill Martin, Jr.
* Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
** The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
** A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
(the first long book I remember reading quickly -- 211 pages in a weekend at my grandmother's when I was eight)
Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
? How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss (I have fonder memories of the TV show than the book)
* The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka
? Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by John Archambault
* Little House on the Prarie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
** The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
* The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne
* The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
* Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks (another "all the boys read this" book)
* Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
*Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

* The BFG by Roald Dahl
*The Giver by Lois Lowry
* If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
* Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
* Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
(read on the traumatic day we moved out of our house in Peculiar)
* The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner
* Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
** Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O'Brien
* Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman
* The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson (Barbara is a friend of my grandfather's, so this is our family's most common book Christmas present)
* Corduroy by Don Freeman
* Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg
Math Curse by Jon Scieszka
*Matilda by Roald Dahl
Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls
*Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
**Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary
(loved Ramona madly)
The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White (have never finished this)
? Are You My Mother? by Philip D. Eastman
* The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis (six out of seven -- though what's up with having both this and Lion, Witch on the list? Same for the "Little House" books)
* Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey (also loved this madly)
? One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss
* The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
* The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
The Napping House by Audrey Wood
* Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig (and this, as well as Pete's A Pizza)
? The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
** Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
* The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
** Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
* Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss
Basil of Baker Street, by Eve Titus
? The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper
The Cay by Theodore Taylor
* Curious George by Hans Augusto Rey
Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox
Arthur series by Marc Tolon Brown (keep your eye on his nose!)
* The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
* Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes
(Today I really wished I had a cool teacher to slip me a note that read "Today was a rough day. Tomorrow will be better.")
* Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
* The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton
* The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown (best last line in children's literature)
* Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar
* Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish
* Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
(read when I was 22; adored)
* A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard Atwater
My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
* Stuart Little by E. B. White
- Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech (a cheat of a book, I still think)
* The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
The Art Lesson by Tomie De Paola
* Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina
* Clifford, the Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell
* Heidi by Johanna Spyri
* Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare
* The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
* Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert N. Munsch

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Brooklyn Arden Reviews: "Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky" and "Northanger Abbey"

I went to see two enjoyable shows this weekend. The first, "Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky," at Playwrights Horizons, featured a down-on-his-luck singer-songwriter named (surprise) Floyd, living out of his snow-covered Studebaker in Nowheresville, Montana. After the demise of his career, Floyd is pretty much just planning to drink himself to death, but then a teenage girl named Clea who wants to be a singer-songwriter herself discovers him and adopts him as a mentor. She keeps coming back and keeps coming back, despite his general curmudgeonliness, and eventually she breaks through his shell and helps him get up on his feet. In Act II, she leaves to go to Los Angeles, a.k.a. the Pit of Sin and Mouth of Hell for any aspiring ingenue, and while she succeeds in film and music (breaking into the charts with a song Floyd wrote for her), she indeed turns away from the enthusiastic young Clea that Floyd knew to become a cynical drug-using wreck. After they connect through a chance phone call, Floyd convinces her to come out and visit him in his new digs in Austin, Texas, and that fresh Midwestern air and clean Midwestern living restore her to her former bloom. The show ends with the two of them onstage together singing a good knee-thumpin' country song about how they'll never get divorced. George W. Bush would be mighty proud.

I am being sardonic here simply because I was slightly astonished how much the plot smacked of middle-aged-male wish-fulfillment to me: the teenage girl who is devoted to saving you, but then you get to save her in the end, from big bad L.A. and those young men who don't treat her right and, you know, a successful career as a singer and actress . . . And then you get married, despite the thirty-year-difference in your ages, and live happily ever after singing Carter Family country songs. The fact that David Cale not only wrote and directed but stars in the show, opposite a comely twentysomething, rather reinforces my suspicions of male egotism.

But I am not being entirely fair either. It isn't 100% clear that Floyd and Clea have gotten married in the end -- the song lyrics may speak only for their personae in the song -- and the double salvation gave the show a pleasing balance. ("If he can't save her, what do you propose instead?" I can hear Mr. Cale asking me. "They grow away from each other and never talk? Where's the dramatic satisfaction in that, you feminist harpy?" "He can save her, but they could have stayed just friends," I reply firmly, "and he could go to California and support her career.") I would also be remiss not to say that both actors were very strong, especially Mary Faber, who sang her heart out as Clea; the writing was filled with real human moments; and the backing band was a joy, with special shout-outs to the two lead guys on guitar. Altogether I commend the show as an enjoyable evening of theater, particularly if you like quality country-rock music . . . but if you are Gloria Steinem (or the princess of Liechtenstein), it's not for you.

If the first show demonstrated the male ego at its most well-meaning, the second showed feminine wit at its most subtle -- being an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, "Northanger Abbey." Northanger Abbey was Austen's first novel, which she later rewrote, and functions as a parody of the Gothic romances popular at the time, particularly The Mysteries of Udolpho, a book which thrills the heroine (Catherine Morland, the very definition of an ingenue) no end. The playwright Lynn Marie Macy cleverly stages scenes from Udolpho as dream sequences within the action of "Northanger," which not only acquaints modern theatrical audiences with the conventions of Regency Gothics, it points up the multiple parallels between the two works, both structural and comedic. (The show signalled the shifts between Northanger and Udolpho by having the characters turn the pages of a giant onstage book.) Everything about this show was sprightly, swift, and filled with good cheer and Austenesque humor, and I had a great time. I also enjoyed a post-show coffee with Maggie of AustenBlog and Julie, who pretty much convinced me I need to join JASNA at last.

"Northanger Abbey" runs for one more weekend at Theatre Ten Ten on the Upper East Side, and it gets the Brooklyn Arden Squid of Approval:

(Squid graphic courtesy the Squid Page here.)

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Best Business Name of the Day

Overheard at a stoop sale on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope:

"Yeah, I've always wanted to open a store called Joanie Loves Tchotchkes."

25 1/3 + Various Beginnings

Gacked from Alvina: In 2005, Time magazine picked the 100 best English-language novels (1923-present). Mark the selections you have read in bold. If you liked it, add a star (*) in front of the title, if you didn't, give it a minus (-); if you're indifferent, a question mark (?). Then, put the total number of books you've read in the subject line.

The Adventures of Augie March - Saul Bellow
All the King's Men - Robert Penn Warren
American Pastoral - Philip Roth
? An American Tragedy - Theodore Dreiser (high school)
* Animal Farm - George Orwell (middle school)
Appointment in Samarra - John O'Hara
? Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret - Judy Blume (elementary school -- I remember finding Margaret kind of dumb and weird for being obsessed with breasts and her period, but I should probably reread it.)
The Assistant - Bernard Malamud
At Swim-Two-Birds - Flann O'Brien
** Atonement - Ian McEwan (the beginning was terribly slow, but middle and ending devastating)
Beloved - Toni Morrison
The Berlin Stories - Christopher Isherwood
The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler
The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood
Blood Meridian - Cormac McCarthy
Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
* The Bridge of San Luis Rey - Thornton Wilder (high school, after I played the Lady in a Box in "Our Town")
Call It Sleep - Henry Roth
Catch-22 - Joseph Heller
* The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger (in high school I thought Holden was dumb and whiny; as an adult I found him hugely pathetic, in the classical sense, and heartbreaking)
A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess
The Confessions of Nat Turner - William Styron
The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen (I'm in the middle of this right now and loving it for its simultaneous utter lack of mercy in portraying its characters' faults and psyches, and deep human sympathy towards them)
The Crying of Lot 49 - Thomas Pynchon
A Dance to the Music of Time - Anthony Powell
The Day of the Locust - Nathanael West
Death Comes for the Archbishop - Willa Cather
A Death in the Family - James Agee
The Death of the Heart - Elizabeth Bowen
Deliverance - James Dickey
Dog Soldiers - Robert Stone
Falconer - John Cheever
* The French Lieutenant's Woman - John Fowles (college; fantastic book -- I recall the almost physical jolt I felt when I hit Chapter 13 -- and an equally innovative film adaptation)
The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing
Go Tell it on the Mountain - James Baldwin
* Gone With the Wind - Margaret Mitchell (middle school)
? The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
Gravity's Rainbow - Thomas Pynchon
? The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
A Handful of Dust - Evelyn Waugh
The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers
The Heart of the Matter - Graham Greene
Herzog - Saul Bellow
Housekeeping - Marilynne Robinson (in the middle of this too, and loving it likewise)
A House for Mr. Biswas - V.S. Naipaul
I, Claudius - Robert Graves
Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace
Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison (Resolution Book; have started this)
Light in August - William Faulkner
? The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe - C.S. Lewis (elementary school, college, and January)
* Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov (Resolution Book; I read this right after The Virgin Suicides a couple of years ago, which was excellent but incredibly intense -- nothing but sex and death for two months straight)
Lord of the Flies - William Golding
? The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien (I've read one of the three novels)
Loving - Henry Green
Lucky Jim - Kingsley Amis
The Man Who Loved Children - Christina Stead
Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie (a Resolution Book a couple years ago, so I've started it)
Money - Martin Amis
? The Moviegoer - Walker Percy (college)
* Mrs. Dalloway - Virginia Woolf (adored it, and The Hours by Michael Cunningham too)
Naked Lunch - William Burroughs
Native Son - Richard Wright
Neuromancer - William Gibson
Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro
* 1984 - George Orwell (high school)
On the Road - Jack Kerouac
* One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Ken Kesey (high school)
The Painted Bird - Jerzy Kosinski
Pale Fire - Vladimir Nabokov
*A Passage to India - E.M. Forster (Resolution Book)
Play It As It Lays - Joan Didion
Portnoy's Complaint - Philip Roth
** Possession - A.S. Byatt (college; one of my favorite books in life)
The Power and the Glory - Graham Greene
? The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark (high school)
Rabbit, Run - John Updike
* Ragtime - E.L. Doctorow (college)
The Recognitions - William Gaddis
Red Harvest - Dashiell Hammett
Revolutionary Road - Richard Yates
The Sheltering Sky - Paul Bowles
Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut
Snow Crash - Neal Stephenson
The Sot-Weed Factor - John Barth
? The Sound and the Fury - William Faulkner (college; this was on the reading list for my senior comprehensive exam, alongside Possession and To the Lighthouse, and we concluded that the theme of the list that year was "Sex and Death, but Mostly Death")
The Sportswriter - Richard Ford
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold - John Le Carre
The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway
* Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston (college)
Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe
* To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee (high school)
* To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf (college)
Tropic of Cancer - Henry Miller
Ubik - Philip K. Dick
Under the Net - Iris Murdoch
Under the Volcano - Malcolm Lowry
* Watchmen - Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (Resolution Book, read it this year, loved it)
White Noise - Don DeLillo
White Teeth - Zadie Smith
Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys

I'm working on my Resolution List for this coming year and I'd been thinking about a lot of these novels and novelists. . . . I've never read any DeLillo, Pynchon, Roth or Greene, for example (and I can hear my dear friend Rachel saying in my head right now, "Oh, I love Roth and Greene!"), so maybe 2007 will be the year of the Twentieth-Century White Male American Novelist. On the other hand, I usually try to balance the list across time periods, genders, and ethnicities, and thinking about nothing but the concerns of TCWMANs for a year sounds a little oppressive to me. Other suggestions for balancing the list?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Living the Dream

So you're a phenomenally successful bestselling author. You have the miniseries, the homes in San Francisco and Paris, the listing in the Guinness Book of World Records, the honors from the French government, the series of moralistic children's books, even the art gallery. But you know what you could have that no other author could share?

You, the fragrance, with the tagline "Believe in happy endings."

(The copy says its notes include "Mandarin, Butterfly Jasmine, Hydroponic Rose, Cashmere Musk," and "Lush Green Notes," which I'm guessing are dollar bills. Notes in "Editor: The Fragrance" would include "A Half-Eaten Ham Sandwich, Eraser Leavings, Rubber Bands, and Blue Ink.")

Well, good for her. Coincidentally, this is my favorite piece of copywriting I've seen of late, from a Literary Guild listing for one of this author's books:

"Imagine you're doing volunteer work in Africa, and you fall in love with another volunteer, but you can't pursue any romance with him because you're secretly the princess of Liechtenstein."

Oh, man, I hate it when that happens!

Finally, I'm not going to comment on how this video came to be. I'm just going to say I had nothing to do with Tuesday's announcement, nothing, nothing at all. . . .

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Celebrity Silliness on a Serious Day

In honor of Britney's filing for divorce from the hapless Kevin Federline*, I present to you Go Fug Yourself, which has caused me no end of mirth since Rachel introduced me to it a few weeks ago. It combines the celebrity-dress hilarity/horror from the back pages of Us Weekly with the pointed wit and pop-culture acumen of my sweet Anthony Lane; these girls have the claws out, and these outfits deserve it. Enjoy!


I cannot believe I just wrote that on the day of the midterm elections, when we as Americans may have done something enormous and important and taken the country back from the Worst President Ever and his equally appalling Congress. Ah well, consider it my small, frivolous, personal celebration of the downfall of Rick Santorum.

* Cliches Live Example #2,587: His middle name is really, truly, actually Earl!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Title Game + the Millionaire Game

Thanks to all of you who commented upon Elizabeth Bunce's and my quest to retitle her novel. After letting the ideas percolate for a few days, Elizabeth and I made a list of all the titles, then our personal favorites, and then new possibilities suggested by the personal favorites; and then we got on the phone to talk over these lists. And in the midst of our conversation, Elizabeth said something that made us both go "Ooh!":

A Curse Dark as Gold

We liked it for the fairy-tale sound ("hair as red as blood," "lips white as snow," "a curse dark as gold" -- I'm mixing my fairy tales, but nonetheless); the intrigue of the admittedly contradictory combination of "dark" and "gold"; the narrative element and hint of threat supplied by "curse" versus the merely descriptive "dark as gold"; and the fact that it used all our key words. We are still living with it and thinking about it; the book won't be published until Spring 2008, so we have plenty of time to change our minds. But it was the first of the many (many) titles we tried that gave us that lovely shiver of frisson, so it shall be our title for the time being. Thanks to you all for helping us brainstorm!

Also, as is certainly evident from this blog, I love talking about writing and editing and the publication process, and I'm always fascinated by stories of the book behind the book and the brain behind the book -- the anatomy of the book, perhaps, the assemblage of parts and mind and spirit that makes a novel live. So I suggested to Elizabeth that she might talk a little about her process over on her LJ, and she's already started with an account of the inspiration for A Curse Dark as Gold. Worth checking out!


Yesterday I took the afternoon off work and went up to the ABC studios on West 67th Street to try out for "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" The show cannily requires you to sit through the taping of two episodes before you take the test, so I can report that Meredith Vieira seems as nice in person as she is onscreen; the lights and music are just as portentous and hilarious in the studio as they are when you watch; and that it was an enjoyable and interesting afternoon of trivia and seeing the backstage workings of a TV show. I was seated in the first row, directly behind the contestant, so if you watch the episode on March 8, you can see my hands shifting in the background. (I also look deeply serious as I enter my answer during an "Ask the Audience" lifeline.) After the tapings were over, they herded us into the ABC employee cafeteria to sit down for the written thirty-question multiple-choice test. I was on "Jeopardy!" a very very long time ago (I placed last in my show, and won tickets to "The Lion King"), so I approached the test with some confidence.

And -- I flunked! Big-time! Well, I don't know how big-time, but I wasn't one of the people called to interview with the producers (as perhaps eight of the sixty or so people in the room were). I was smarter when I was younger, dammit, or at least I knew more useless trivia then. Ah well. If I can't make my million off a game show, I guess it's back to a life of crime.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Two Items of Happy News

One a matter of interest to writers (I hope), and one of personal pleasure:

1. My Michigan SCBWI talk -- "The Art of Detection: One Editor's Techniques for Analyzing and Revising Your Novel" -- is now online over at Talking Books. This is revised, expanded, and much improved from the draft I gave at the conference, and available as a downloadable Word document for easy reading. Hope you find it useful!

2. I bought a new pair of running shoes tonight, with gray material and webbing, deep purple and lilac lining and decoration, and gunmetal-shiny leather edging. They are gloriously girly, unrepentantly badass running shoes. But the best thing of all is their name -- Nimbus. I've got my own Nimbus 2000s! (Here's hoping they have Firebolts in 2007.)

A Writing Exercise: Fun with Spam

A little post-Halloween silliness, and a fun little writing experiment for those of you who aren't doing NaNoWriMo (and Go, you! those who are):

  1. Select a sentence (or at least, an independent clause) from the spam message below, which I received from one "Sheena Roland."
  2. Write a short story (of no more than 1000 words) that either dramatizes the situation described by the sentence, or uses the sentence as a moral for the story, or -- really does whatever the heck else you would like to do with the sentence, as long as it involves its nouns and emotions.
  3. Your story must include either one character named "Sheena Roland," or two characters named "Sheena" and "Roland."
  4. You have exactly an hour to write this story.
  5. Post your story on your blog or LJ, and leave a link to it in the comments here; or, if you don't have a blog, you can leave the story itself in the comments (though please try to keep it short if you're doing the latter).

Have fun!

The spam: Most people believe that a greasy cargo bay avoids contact with an avocado pit, but they need to remember how almost a chain saw ruminates. An umbrella for a warranty is highly paid. For example, a ball bearing related to the dust bunny indicates that a cab driver non-chalantly gives a pink slip to a judge inside a photon. When you see an asteroid, it means that a hockey player laughs out loud. Some pickup truck inside the grand piano procrastinates, and a chess board for a buzzard hesitates; however, a mean-spirited jersey cow eagerly trades baseball cards with the briar patch. For example, the particle accelerator indicates that a bowling ball figures out the most difficult fruit cake. Most people believe that a turkey completely secretly admires a stoic blood clot, but they need to remember how knowingly the turn signal defined by an apartment building beams with joy. When a tabloid is gentle, the outer globule tries to seduce the inferiority complex. A grand piano around the ski lodge feels nagging remorse, but a satellite secretly admires an asteroid inside an ocean.

My attempt at this: It started out as an ordinary day for Dr. Teeth. He was neglected in the morning as the skiers streamed busily out into the sparkling February air, clunking along in their heavy boots and Stay-Puft insulation; pounded on at lunchtime by a few screaming children before their mothers called them away for the snack bar’s overcooked hot dogs and undercooked French fries; and in the late afternoon, used to tinkle out “The Music of the Night” by a balding man who sang the song with a heavy French accent, to the barely muffled snorts of the giggling teenage girls who had taken over the snack bar. As the man launched into the bridge, Teeth wished upon his 88th key, and for the 8,888th time, that he might be transferred into more respectable surroundings. From his birth in a melodious factory in Queens, he had played the very best concert halls of Europe, accompanied by some of the greatest pianists ever to grace the stage; and then taken a dignified and happy retirement in New York, as the rehearsal piano for a small company devoted entirely to the works of Stephen Sondheim. But the company had gone under (appreciation of genius being in short supply as always), and Dr. Teeth had been sold northward . . . to this backwater of a Vermont ski lodge where he was condemned to play Andrew Lloyd Webber!

Teeth trembled with the indignity of it. He rattled. He shook. He thundered—

And right at the height of the song’s climax, he dropped the keyboard cover on the man’s hands, refashioning the song as “THE MUSIC OF THE—OWWW!!!

The teenage girls howled. The man reddened, but he didn’t swear or pound Teeth’s keys; rather he looked anxiously in the direction of a pretty brown-haired woman reading alone on a couch near the fire. She didn’t look up.

“Well, that’s good,” the man muttered as he pushed the keyboard cover back into place. His normal accent was flat, affectless, almost Midwestern. “At least she didn’t notice . . .” He swept a hand down the keyboard. “But what would she notice, I wonder?”

He started “All I Ask of You,” and through his irritation (couldn’t the guy at least vary the damn Webber musical? There was some good stuff in “Jesus Christ Superstar”), Teeth felt a wave of nagging remorse at his impulsive act of rage. So the guy was self-aware enough to know he kind of looked like an idiot, and he wasn’t just showing off like some “American Idol” wannabe. The woman was pretty . . . Maybe Teeth could help him out. Not “Send in the Clowns”—still a great song, but it had become almost as cheesy as the Webber through overuse. Something from “Company” or “Follies” or . . . ah.

Slowly, without the man really being aware of it, “All I Ask of You” became “Not A Day Goes By,” about people with all of life before them, who come to New York and fall in love:

Not a day goes by
Not a single day —

But you're somewhere a part of my life,
And it looks like you'll stay.
As the days go by,
I keep thinking, "When does it end?"
That it can't get much better much longer.
But it only gets better and stronger
And deeper and nearer
And simpler and freer
And richer and clearer
And no,

Not a day goes by

The music was so beautiful and true that it seemed to draw the words out of the man, whether he had known them before or not, and in his real voice, not the fake French of the Webber. And it was working, Teeth saw: The woman looked up.

Not a blessed day
But you somewhere come into my life
And you don't go away.
And I have to say
If you do, I'll die.
I want day after day
After day after day
After day after day
After day
Till the days go by,
Till the days go by,
Till the days go by!

The last chord faded. The man was still staring at Dr. Teeth. But the woman now stood at his side. “That was great,” she said softly. His head snapped up, but his eyes were dazed. “‘Merrily,’ right?”

“What?” the man said.

“‘Merrily,’” she said. “That was from ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’ right? I love that musical, and hardly anyone knows it . . .”

“Oh, ah, ‘Merrily,’” the man said. “Right.”

“Well, that was really beautiful,” she said, and smiled. “Can I buy you a coffee? I wasn’t expecting to meet a fellow Sondheim fan here at a ski lodge. My name is Sheena.”

“Sondheim. Right. Yeah. Coffee?” The words finally seemed to connect in his brain, and he stared at her as if he’d just woken up. Then he smiled too. “I’m Roland. I’d love some.”

He stood up, and they wandered off toward the lodge’s in-house Starbucks. You’re on your own, kid, thought Dr. Teeth. But he did a little arpeggio, just for fun; sometimes this place wasn’t so bad after all.

N.B.: The definitive recording (in my opinion) of "Not A Day Goes By" is by Barbara Cook on her "Mostly Sondheim" album, where it is paired with "Losing My Mind" and absolutely breaks your heart.